A long farewell
The small space shop on site at the Kennedy Space Center gives an indication of the fast-approaching end of space shuttle flights from the cape; everything is reduced in price. Although many people here on the ‘Space Coast’ are unsure about the coming months and years, the spirit needed to carry this historic space location into the future of spaceflight is unbroken. The day before the launch of STS-134, the press conferences were not just looking forward to the imminent mission.
In particular, Space X, a provider of commercial space transportation, is taking every opportunity to point out the future of the facilities here. Nevertheless, an astronaut with whom I discussed the future of Kennedy Space Center wiped a symbolic tear from their left eye; there is nothing left to say.
This, however, is not the reason for the presence of more than 1500 journalists or why around 500,000 onlookers are expected to crowd the roads around the space centre in the hours leading up to the launch. They are here to see Endeavour, the last space shuttle to be built, set off on its final mission – STS-134. The ‘birth’ of orbiter vehicle 105 (OV 105) has its origins in the Challenger disaster. NASA awarded the contract for the construction of Endeavour on 31 July 1987; she made her first flight, STS-49, in 1992. Only 19 years later, she will be ‘grounded’, as pilots say, after this two-week flight. For its 25th and final flight, the shuttle is carrying the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) experiment in its payload bay. Science is now going aboard the International Space Station (ISS) to look for the substance that holds the Universe together – at least according to astrophysicist’s theories – to search for dark matter. Also, if even one particle of antimatter is detected, then according to the Nobel laureate Sam Ting, father of the AMS, we will have to rethink what we know about the cosmos.
This is the penultimate shuttle flight and it has the rather unglamorous name ‘ULF6’. The fleet that was built for supplying infrastructure elements in near-Earth space has, since the end of the Cold War, become a transport fleet. The flights to the Russian Mir space station and the ISS have earned them this designation. With the AMS on board, Endeavour is flying the largest ever experiment, at four metres long and with a weight of seven tons, to the ISS. Up until the ISS is decommissioned, the spectrometer will collect tiny particles and will perhaps open up a new perspective on the origin and makeup of the Universe. A look into the past can reveal much about the future.
After the final landing, 133 astronauts will have flown aboard Endeavour. She will have orbited Earth more than 4600 times and travelled about 120 million miles. Endeavour will go on display at the California Science Center in Los Angeles, not far from the factories and test facilities where the shuttle fleet was created.
The end of the Space Shuttle Programme is scheduled for June, when Atlantis will fly mission STS-135 – one last launch for ‘Beauty and the Beast’, as the astronauts respectfully refer to the shuttle. It will be the final flight of a historic chapter in mankind’s technological history. The ending of manned spaceflight is hard to imagine for many Americans. Here in the US, spaceflight stands for technology at the edge of what is possible and is a sign of strength and pride. Many people here are wearing small bands bearing the words “Go Endeavour”; this is a sign of hope and solidarity, a NASA colleague who has worked here in the press centre for many years informs me..
Everyone has gathered to say goodbye, one supposes. The press centre overlooks the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB), one of the largest buildings in the world – which even houses the nest of a small family of vultures – a rare sight. Even rarer is a visit by manatees and dolphins, which are now romping in the small bay in front of the legendary launch clock at the press centre.
The preparations for the 134th shuttle launch are running, as always, punctually and precisely. This will also be the case for the final flight. Everyone here wants to show that without the space centre, there is no way into space. When I ask if the desks will be cleared after the final shuttle launch, my press colleague answers succunctly: “Why? There’s still plenty to do.” This is plain on the route from Cocoa Beach, the nearest town to the space centre; here, a number of adjacent construction sites are earmarked for a future innovation centre.
The STS-134 mission logo is symbolic; at the centre, a representation of the Big Bang surrounded by electrons orbiting the nucleus of an atom. The space shuttle aproaching the ISS crosses Earth’s horizon on the way to strive for a new goal in the understanding of the Universe.
The last flight of Endeauvour is, in a way, also a view into the future. It is also a somewhat sad occasion here on the Space Coast, where much of the story of spaceflight has been played out, not just the history of the space shuttle.
All images: NASA